Parents should inform, not dictate

2nd May 2008 at 01:00
No school in Scotland would deny that co-operation between school and parents is key to young people learning effectively
No school in Scotland would deny that co-operation between school and parents is key to young people learning effectively. Parents who read with their young children instil habits to support a lifetime of reading. Parents who value learning encourage their children to do the same. Behaviour management is also best achieved when schools and parents work together.

In reaching decisions about how to improve schools, their management must ensure that account is taken of parents' views. There is no point in seeking to introduce school uniform, for example, if parents will not co-operate in enforcing it.

The role of parent council members in staff appointments is also enormously productive, adding precious insights to the selection process.

Parents' views should also inform key curricular changes. The operative word, however, is inform. The common sense of the bulk of parents, and their commitment to the betterment of their children's lives, means they often offer perspectives unconsidered by the professionals. That common sense demands our attention.

Parents, however, are not the customers of schools - at least not in the state system. They do not purchase their children's education. Education is financed by all taxpayers, by income tax from 16-year-olds newly in employment and by council tax paid by pensioners. So it should be. What we produce in schools are not finished products for parents, but young people who are, we trust, prepared to enter the worlds of work, citizenship, family life, individual relationships and personal responsibility.

In other words, the fruits of our labour are for society as a whole. We help to develop rounded human beings. We do not produce commodities for the market place.

In one very particular way, schools must eschew the market paradigm in which improvement is driven by "pleasing our customers". Parents, by their nature (and I am one, with my younger child now in S6), have a time-limited interest in schools. They do indeed pay close attention to how the places to which they send their children educate them but, by and large, their interest in a specific school ends when their own children leave it. Meanwhile, schools are required to create policies and practices that will stand the test of time. These should be informed, but not determined, by the views of passing cohorts of parents.

Schools will sacrifice professional judgment to parental pressure at their cost. It is not a far distance from seeing parents as customers (and the customer is always right!) to accepting parental control.

Schools are public institutions, financed by the taxpaying public, parents and non-parents alike, and they need to be publicly accountable. That accountability is properly delivered via the democratic process. By granting the parent customer status, we move inexorably towards autonomous, independent and private schools. Such a move would rob our society of an inclusive system which, despite all its imperfections, serves Scotland well.

Alex Wood is headteacher of Wester Hailes Education Centre, Edinburgh.

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